Putting Poor Children Second
The New York Times
October 18, 2007
President Bush’s justification for vetoing a bill to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-chip, is that he wants to “put poor children first” rather than extend coverage to middle-class children. That explanation would be more believable if Mr. Bush had actually been putting poor children first. On far too many occasions, the president has sacrificed the interests of poor children to what he deems higher budgetary or ideological priorities. Congress should not allow Mr. Bush to do the same with S-chip.
For the past several years, the Bush administration has been squeezing federal support for Medicaid, the primary program to help the poorest families and their children. Instead of ensuring that more poor children receive coverage, the president is trying to close programs that find and enroll them. His budget for fiscal year 2008 seeks to eliminate funds for a “Cover the Kids” outreach program. A proposed rule change would also eliminate federal matching funds for local school personnel to do Medicaid outreach and enrollment activities.
The administration clearly wasn’t putting poor children first when it strongly supported Congressional bills that would impose new charges on needy beneficiaries — a step that could jeopardize health care for millions of poor children in coming years. The administration also proposed, unsuccessfully, to change Medicaid from an unlimited entitlement into a capped block grant that could have fallen short of needs in bad economic times.
As part of the anti-immigration hysteria, it imposed onerous new paperwork requirements, leading to declines in Medicaid enrollment by citizens in some states. The move also posed potential problems for foster children, for whom it is often difficult to get documents quickly, until Congress stepped in to exempt them.
In education, the president got off to a strong start with his No Child Left Behind Act that imposed new testing and reporting requirements to measure progress in the schools. With bipartisan support in Congress, he helped to provide a substantial increase in federal funds for the first couple of years. But then his budgets and Congressional appropriations flattened out, forcing cuts in programs targeted at low-income children. The president’s latest budget calls for an overall decrease in federal support for elementary and secondary education.
Funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, which provide health and education services to some 900,000 preschool children, has not kept up with inflation over the past five years, forcing programs to lay off teachers, reduce salaries and curtail operating hours. The president’s budget also seeks to eliminate Even Start, a program to help preschoolers and their mothers develop literacy skills.
Not all of the news is so bad. The administration has done relatively well in supporting food stamps and child nutrition programs. It has also taken commendable steps to improve the quality of care in Medicaid and S-chip, increase childhood immunization rates and help states ensure that children on Medicaid get appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
A lot more needs to be done, including reducing the number of American children who do not have health coverage.
The bill that the president has vetoed would increase funding for S-chip substantially and would, in fact, “put poor children first.” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, a key sponsor, estimates that some 92 percent of the children who would benefit would come from families with incomes below twice the poverty level, the group the president says he wants to concentrate on.
House members should vote today to override the president’s veto. It is the best way to protect America’s low-income children.